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Downtown locales expand the possibilities of tequila cocktails

The current cocktail culture has changed much about how and where we drink. Of course there’s the explosion of recipes, ingredients and techniques and the expanded audience. But it’s also affected the basic building blocks of drinking: liquor itself. We’ve got bubblegum vodka, banana rum, cinnamon whiskey, honey Scotch and liqueurs in flavors from chili to elderflower to bacon — all mixed with tinctures, foams and infusions in mind-boggling combinations.

Tequila remains a bit of an outlier: It comes in blanco, anjeo and repsosado, served in Margaritas and shots, and that’s pretty much it. But in the more adventurous environs of downtown Las Vegas, some folks are trying to teach an old bottle some new tricks.

One of the most recent openings in the neighborhood is La Comida (100 Sixth St., 463-9900; see review, Page 20). The room is large and airy, open to both the kitchen and the street, and decorated in the hodgepodge of painted skulls, light-bedecked altars and brightly labeled food cans that seems to be the current iteration of all Mexican restaurants. But the focal point is the bar: a structure of rough wood and primary-colored glass that runs the length of the room and holds dozens — hell, hundreds — of bottles of tequila, from your standard Cuervo to Gran Patron Bordeaux Anejo (the latter at $100 a glass).

These myriad options have led to some intriguing twists of traditional beverages. Margaritas come in the usual flavors, along with additional versions like passion fruit and prickly pear — the latter especially satisfying, with a slightly floral taste and a lurid magenta tint more suited to a jar of Manic Panic hair dye. The Siempre Caliente boasts an even more unique flavor: tequila, passion fruit, sour mix and hot sauce — sweet, spicy, hot and cold all at the same time.

Of course, Downtown Cocktail Room (111 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 880-3696) has its own version of a tequila cocktail — think less south-of-the-border, more northern forest. The S’mores Better is a winter-menu drink, but has an offbeat taste that appeals anytime — and if you’re sitting in the back near the air-conditioning, who’s to care what season it is? The drink evokes a campfire with the burn of tequila, the smoke of Amaro herbal liqueur and the warm glow of Guinness.

Another newcomer to the Arts District/downtown continuum is Mingo (1017 First St., 658-0328), a restaurant-bar with a nice selection of food, plenty of beer and a cocktail menu with a few of its own tequila twists. The Alien Mule is a refreshing spin on the classic Moscow Mule, but with Alien Tequila instead of vodka — actually the bite of the tequila adds a welcome bit of dimension while still blending well with the ginger and lime. The All Night Stand is tequila with lime energy drink, kind of a variation on the Jager Bomb. Mingo does have some distressingly bachelorette-y cocktail names: I don’t care if the Boner or the Pink Lips are the most scrumptious libations known to mankind, I will never order them.

As far as atmosphere, Mingo has some feng shui issues. A too-high divider blocks the flow of the multilevel space and leaves some patrons peeking over walls; some seats are awkwardly positioned; and certain fabric choices are evocative of shower curtains. However, the front bar/patio area is more alluring — a bar seat lets you be inside but feel outside, while patio tables offer more space to sprawl and good people-watching in an increasingly busy neighborhood.

A bit further south, we have another longtime mainstay, this time serving the classic tequila drink. Casa Don Juan (1204 S. Main St., 384-8070) has been pouring margaritas on Main Street since First Friday was just another day of the month. Its Cadillac Margarita is … well, the Cadillac of margaritas, made with Patron and Cointreau, served in a hefty goblet that wouldn’t make a bad home for a goldfish. I’m glad there’s plenty of new ways to drink tequila, but I’ll never quite give up the old school.